On Art Direction, Running a Design Studio, and Grit with Mirko Borsche
This episode features Mirko Borsche, a creative director, graphic designer, and founder of Bureau Borsche. We cover topics such as his work routines and his studio’s culture, challenges Mirko encountered along the way, advice for young designers, the importance of long-term thinking, art direction, and much more.
Mirko Borsche’s career has spanned between work in corporate advertising and progressive cultural design. One time art director for the Mini Group in BMW, he also launched the hugely successful youth magazine NEON in Germany in the ’00s and has tenure as creative director at Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper. Mirko received numerous national and international awards for his work. Amongst many national exhibitions, his work was exhibited in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Florence, Stockholm, Seoul and Tokyo.
"Be patient, confident and don’t take your profession too seriously."
In 2007 he founded his design studio Bureau Borsche in Munich, Germany. Renowned for its creative versatility, they offer design and communication consultancy for clients from all fields of interest and delve deep into the creative process to produce original works within the scope of art, subculture, and design. They’ve worked with clients that include Nike, Bavarian State Opera, Audi, BMW Group, Harper’s Bazaar, Supreme, Apple, Balenciaga, Rimowa and Inter Milano, just to name a few.
- Introduction [00:00:00]
- Episode Introduction [00:00:50]
- Career Advice and Tips for Young Designers [00:03:02]
- Work Routines of a Creative Director in a Design Studio [00:12:53]
- Challenges of Running an Independent Design Studio [00:21:49]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [00:33:45]
- What Does an Art Director Do? [00:34:29]
- On Longevity and Long-Term Career Planning [00:42:48]
- How to Be a Better Creative Professional [00:48:08]
- Episode Outro [00:49:39]
Mirko: You always try to make like the best creative lead for a client, but sometimes it’s not possible. In that case, you need some patience because eventually, there’s another one coming, where you can prove yourself that you’re a really good designer.
This is the Creative Voyage Podcast, a long-form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals to level up. I’m your host Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting. In this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals revealing the stories that shape their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help you take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: Before we dive into the episode, a quick note about our first publication. Towards the end of 2020, we’ve teamed up with industry leaders and dear friends to create an actionable and inspirational magazine, which distils what The Creative Voyage Podcast is all about. In the first issue of The Creative Voyage Paper, you’ll find adapted podcast episodes, three publication-exclusive One Lesson learned features and tips for success. It’s beautifully printed and features Zhong Lin, Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, Eike König, Cian Oba-Smith, Fukiko Takase, YOUTH Studio, and many others. Visit creative.voyage to get your copy.
Mario: In this episode, I talk to a creative director and graphic designer.
Mirko: My name is Mirko Borsche. I’m German. I come from Munich, which is located in Bavaria and I’m a graphic designer.
Mario: Mirko Borsche’s career has spanned between work in corporate advertising and progressive cultural design. One time art director for the Mini group in BMW, he also launched the hugely successful youth magazine, NEON in Germany in the 2000s, and has tenure as creative director at Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper. In 2007, he founded his design studio Bureau Borsche in Munich. Renowned for its creative versatility, they offer design and communication consultancy for clients from all fields of interest and delve deep into the creative process to produce original works with the scope of art, subculture and design. They work with clients that include Nike, Bavarian State Opera, Audi, BMW Group, Harpers Bazaar, Supreme, Apple, Balenciaga, RIMOWA and Inter Milan, just to name a few.
In this episode, we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I have with Mirko in June 2020. We covered topics such as his work routines and their studio culture, challenges Mirko encountered along the way, advice for young designers, the importance of long-term thinking, art direction and much more.
“I never really thought I’ll be doing what I’m doing now,” Mirko told me at the start of our conversation. He felt that he somehow fell into this profession. At the age of 14, he was very sick during summer and had to stay home for a while. The only thing to do most was to watch TV, and those weeks were all about the 1984 Olympics in LA. While watching it, something pulls him to start drawing the stadium, and more specifically, drawing the people at the stadium, making thousands of tiny circles that he was adding character to. It was then that he discovered that drawing gave him something missing in his life at the time. It was a compelling reason to stay inside, competing with his passion for various outdoor sports. There was a spark.
A couple of years later on his commute to school in Munich, he started noticing graffiti’s and he felt that similar pull again. One thing led to another until he got immersed in that scene through the legendary local graffiti artist, Loomit. That passion for illustration, drawing and graffiti nudged him to study graphic design. However, over time, he realized that was not exactly what the profession was really about. A began my conversation with Mirko asking him about the advice he would give his younger self during those early days as suggestions for designers starting their professional journeys today.
Mirko: I started my studies in England and it was way before you, so I had to pay for my studies there. When I came back to Munich, I was completely out of money so I had to work, so I didn’t have a chance to think about it. At that time, because it was the easiest way to get a job, I started with advertising, and in the advertising industry. In the first years, it was just doing actually like campaigns for brands. I was not really happy with my job, actually, so didn’t really make me feel good. I was still trying to get back into the field of illustration, but it was hard because advertising was occupying my whole day. Because I don’t know, like at that time, it was super usual if you work in that industry to start at nine, but to work until 10, 11 at night, every day, seven days a week. At the end of the day, you’ve been super exhausted and somehow, I was a bit sad doing that job.
Mario: How old were you at the time?
Mirko: I started doing advertising I think around 21, 22. I did that quite long, at least until I was 28, something like that.
Mario: During those early years of being a professional designer in the industry, if you could go back and give yourself at that time, like a piece of advice, what would it be?
Mirko: You better watch out, not having so many debts. I don’t know. The thing, really the urge of getting some money was really, really big and I think that was maybe the problem. But on the other hand, for me, it was also good learning. Everything I can do now, which gives me the chance like on concepts and work with bigger clients. In the end, also is learning what I learned during my professional time doing advertising. Do you know what I mean?
Mirko: Like all that marketing concept-based background, and how to actually place an idea and make it work for the client, obviously is like also because of that professional background doing advertising beforehand. It helped. I mean, I didn’t like doing it for so many years, but in the end, it turned out to be super worthy that I did it.
Mario: Yeah. From your perspective today, if you would have to give some advice for new, like younger talent, like people who are entering into graphic designer, or art direction, maybe even like some students who want to work with you or have an internship with you. Is there anything you would advise those people?
Mirko: The reality in our business that 80% or 90% off graphic design work is not what you see on Instagram. It’s not what you digitally see all the time and you think like, “Oh! This is super beautiful. This is the way I want to work later on.” Because everything almost printed you see in your life is done by graphic designers, and most of the stuff doesn’t look that appealing. Do you know what I mean? That’s not because people are not able or capable of doing better graphic design. It’s because that’s the way these things look and the clients want these things to look in the end. I think that’s like the crucial reality that when you’re young, you always think like you have — mean, “I want to do that beautiful thing. I want to do that beautiful thing.” But in the end, you end up doing catalog for supermarket or whatever.
I think the earlier you learn to do that and accept that that might be your job, the least the chance is in the end, that you end up in that industry.
Mario: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Mirko: Maybe that’s my learning because I think like doing these eight years of like cars, cigarettes and whatever, I had to do like advertising for — I definitely knew what I’m not going to end up with and I worked even harder not to end up again in that industry. Does that sound reasonable?
Mario: Yeah. I think it’s, on top of like seeing work on Instagram or other platforms, which are inspiring and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what I want to do.” On top of that, I feel like the University’s system is also a bit of a bubble in itself, where you could kind of work on cool stuff and have this like not like a market valued feedback, which can also be very fun. But then when you get to it, and then you have to apply a logo to every single thing. Even if it’s just like preparing files for it, it just takes time. Somebody has to do it, and usually, it’s a graphic designer who does that.
Mirko: Yeah. I mean, when I have lectures on universities, or like on colleges or whatsoever, that’s the thing I’m always telling the students, is just, look into like that industry. How many studios are out there that you really admire and you like? How many people do you think work in that studio? On the other hand, how many students leave every year the university with a bachelor? How big are the chances of having a brilliant job? I mean, you can be a freelancer as well or you can open up your own studio, but how many clients are out there which actually wants a nice graphic design. It’s just a calculation which you have to make in your mind. I mean the number gets smaller and smaller. Then, in the end, the chances are not that high I think.
Mario: Yeah. But do you think, is there anything young professional can do to increase their chances?
Mirko: Definitely. I mean, I think it’s the portfolio which matters, so I would — I don’t know. I mean, if I would have to do it now, maybe yeah, I would try to get as desperately into the best studios I actually really want to work for and learn the most out of it. And yeah, if they wouldn’t take me, I would try again, and again and again. Because these are like the most valuable years, or maybe the first years you’re working in the industry as a graphic designer. Because you know, you’re not really stuck to place, you don’t have a family yet, wife, kids, your own apartment. The day you’re not that flexible anymore, this is eventually going to come. Then it’s not that easy to move from one city to another.
I mean, you ended up in Copenhagen as well, you know what I mean? It’s like, you didn’t end up in Sarajevo or Zagreb. You’re now in Copenhagen. I think for you, it’s like it’s the place where you might get old. That’s your reality, so all your chances are to be around the city and the chances you have there. Before, like a few years before and you could go imagine yourself anywhere.
Mario: Yeah, exactly.
Mirko: I mean, I ended up in Munich. I mean, I grew up in Munich. I left Munich because I hated it so much. I went — everywhere, I was studying in London, I was working in Hamburg, I was working in New York. I ended up in Munich again. That’s reality somehow.
Mario: How did that happen?
Mirko: It’s just a coincidence, but it’s a bit closely related to my first kid, but yeah. It occurred that somehow, I don’t know. That city didn’t want me to leave. Now I’m back again. I have to say, I really have to admit that I really hated coming back and I never wanted to come back. But now that I’m back, I really love that city. It’s like, it’s just your mindset, how you accept something. The city changed as well, and I think also, the chances in the job changed as well. Because a few years ago, that was not possible to work from a small city like Munich for big clients around the world. Now, because of how you can exchange data, how you can communicate and everything, everything is possible. You can be actually everywhere and work for anyone. This is good. I mean, this is something which definitely should give everybody hope and maybe also gives a chance to places which might didn’t have a chance beforehand.
In my estimation Bureau Borshe is one of the most coveted graphic design studios working today. Their work and range are inspiring, so I wanted to peek behind the curtain and understand a bit about their operation. Here, I’ve talked with Mirko about his work routines and their studio’s culture.
Mirko: On a regular basis for the last 12 years, I have two very important calls in the week. It’s like one of the most important, on Monday twice. One is around 11:00. One is around 4:30 in the afternoon. That’s with the Die Zeit and Die Zeit magazine. I’m doing that for I think 12 years already as a creative director. I have that call with the editors, and the designers that are there to organize the week, what are the main subjects we have to do, like what are the photographers we have to call, for which photoshoot. Ideas for illustrations for the magazine, newspaper and like all the surroundings in that house, which is like a powerhouse, because they have a publication every week. That’s quite a steady output. That’s super important.
Then the other call or meeting is with the Bavarian State Opera, which is also our client for 10 years. It’s on Thursdays, where we have also that meeting. What are the next premiers? What do we have to do for the magazine, online, marketing stuff like posters or program books? These are like very steady ones, then we have like every morning, kind 9:00 meeting with the people in the office, where we try to organize the day, which is also important because we have — I don’t know. In Germany, we have almost no clients in Germany, but most of our clients are abroad somewhere. The biggest markets are Paris, New York, Portland, Milan, Beijing, Tokyo. We have a lot of different time schedules as well because these people live in different time zones than we do. We have to organize that as well because sometimes it might be late because of a Zoom call.
We have a Zoom call maybe with Portland in the evening, so we have to organize that. Also, I don’t want to stress the people too much in the office. Our work routine shouldn’t be longer than working until seven in the evening, so we have to check out if people should come later the next day like all these organizations are important. Nine o’clock in the morning, then we organize that through. Then yeah, we try to work ourselves through the day. The good thing is, we’re all working on one table. We have one really huge table, and we’re all sitting at the same table the whole day. The rest is quite easy to organize because we can just talk next to each other about everything.
Mario: How is your team organized? How many people do you have at the studio?
Mirko: It varies a little bit because sometimes we have one or two freelancers inside. But the fixed staff together with me is six people and two to three interns.
Mario: Okay. What are the roles? Do you have different types of roles? Or is it most like graphic designers or how is that?
Mirko: We have one studio manager, and the rest is just graphic designers.
Mario: Can you talk a little bit more about your workspace? I think in your Here 2014 lecture, you were mentioning, this is kind of like an open space where you kind of like — everybody can just bring their laptops and shift things around. Is that still like that?
Mirko: We moved this year, so we moved in March to a new space. It is still that way, so we still have an open space, one table where everybody brings his laptop, sits there and leaves the office place again and can take his stuff back home. All the data we’re working on is ending up on the server, which is like the computer server, where we have all the projects on it, and at the same time, on the Dropbox account. But what basically changed is that we have, because of Corona as well, way more Zoom calls, way more Skype calls. We decided last year because I had to travel so much for presentations and everything, that we don’t want to do that anymore. Also climate-wise, because it didn’t really make sense to go to Milan for presentation for like 10, or 15 or half an hour presentation and you have like — you have to fly there, you have to fly back, which is like a waste of money, time and our environment as well.
We needed a new space, which gives us the chance to vary a bit more, to have like this meeting. Now, in a new space, we have like still that open office structure, like that one room and then we have another — that’s why it’s so loud, we have like a front place where we have like our Zoom calls or meetings with clients. It’s like a shop. It’s on a big street, that’s why it’s like in between that call it’s so loud because of the police who are crossing by, and emergency and whatsoever.
Mario: Can you give us an insight into your studio life or like studio culture? I mean, you mentioned that you don’t want to overburden people and that you have some of those like constraints. But then, other than that, are there any other things, like routines or practices you have?
Mirko: I mean, the studio exists now for 12 years I think. I think 12 years. We started completely differently. It was more like a loose concept of freelance people in the way beginning. I was also living in the studio and we used to work there day in day out. Somehow, we never had the feeling of a beginning and an end. Over the years, we started restructuring it, so everybody’s now a permanent employee. We have like fixed working times. It’s a bit more, I would say like German word would be [inaudible]. I don’t know the English word actually. It’s more settled. I think the studio atmospheres are more organized, settled and we really check out that people take the holidays, and have the fixed holiday times and good payment. Like all these things, we really have to work out over the years together how we want to do it. We found out that the more organized and the more settled it is — settled is maybe the best word for it. It works out best for a creative working space.
Mario: Great. When it comes to like your work because you are like a leader of the studio and creative art director, so how much time out of your schedule goes into leading, and managing, and creative directing versus more hands-on work?
Mirko: It really depends. It’s also like how big the project is, but I still try to design as much as possible. But obviously, I have to organize a lot of stuff around it, like presentations and also having like the lead on concepts and ideas, and how to make the strategy for the clients. But still, it’s like — I’m still like around 50% to 60% designing stuff and 40% organizing. I try to get the organizing part less. The new office manager is not only an office manager, he also helps me like in all strategies and all other things that I can go back to more to what I actually wanted to do in the beginning. For me, it would be much better like, I would have more fun just designing stuff instead of organizing things. But obviously, because of also like moving into the new space and everything, yeah, I’m a little bit like involved in organizing, because of that whole, how to organize the new server, how to organize the new office structure and all that. But all this is going to end hopefully soon. I know that sounds super tired now, but it’s like that Corona thing and also moving at the same time, acquiring jobs and all that was a bit exhausting I think over the past few weeks.
Mario: Yeah. It sounds still that you have a pretty good balance of that.
Mirko: Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s super important I think for all of us. All my people also have lot of responsibility and they definitely want to take that responsibility as well, like dealing with clients and dealing with concepts and stuff, which is good. I think we all try to help each other that nobody gets too exhausted during like working periods. But as you know yourself, is it like this creative thing? It can be sometimes. It can be quite exhausting I think.
Running a successful independent design studio is certainly not an easy matter, especially considering that a creative industry has been going through complex and even disruptive times. Mirko has been a part of that industry for nearly two decades, so I was curious to hear about his experience on that journey. He discusses some of the potential challenges the designers face in the near future, the obstacles he encountered along the way and starts by talking about the current uncertainties due to the COVID-19.
Mirko: Our biggest challenge is going to be, what’s going to stay after that crisis. Do you know what I mean? I think this year, it’s really hard to describe. Like that fear everybody’s going to have — what’s going to happen next year, when that crisis actually arrives in our industry, when all the new budgets — I’m not going to be there anymore for like graphic design, on like — everybody thinks, maybe I don’t need a new logo this year, maybe in five years when I have money again. So yeah, it’s more short time thinking, what’s going to be the — as Jonas who is doing that office management as well in here. He said quite reasonably at the beginning of Corona, he said like, “What’s our Corona product? What’s that COVID product we have? Instead of just graphic design.”
Maybe this is the first thing we have to solve and think about. I mean like the whole thing sounds a bit disastrous now. Hopefully, nothing bad is going to come, but you know, we, Germans, are pessimistic.
Mario: It’s good to be ready. That’s very stoic.
Mirko: Being prepared, I think that’s something.
Mario: But haven’t you started your studio just like around the time of the —
Mirko: The last crisis, yeah. Yeah, of course. That was the funny thing, it was like really — actually, I didn’t want to start a studio at all. I just want to like — I just quitted my job and actually had another job, but that job didn’t turn out to be a job, so I was out of employment. Then I thought, maybe I’m going to start freelancing again or maybe because I didn’t have any other opportunities, I was thinking about freelancing for advertising agencies again, like going to step back until the crisis is gone. That’s why I started with my website, my first website, I think you can still get over mirkoborsche.com, on the domain, so it was not even the idea of an office.
Then I had this very, very small wooden hut somewhere in Munich, which was like an old kiosk with no heating, no heating, no toilet, nothing. Then I had that idea of calling it bureau because it was so shitty, then I needed like some kind of official name for it to make it nice for me. It turned out that a friend of mine wants to freelance as well, and he shared the office space with me. He said, “Yeah. Can I do it under your name as well?” Because he thought, maybe it’s a better idea like to bring both powers together under one name. That’s how it started.
Mario: Wow! That’s interesting.
Mirko: It was never an idea of like having a graphic design studio, never at all. That’s why I said, it took us a while also to realize that this is going to become something professional and that we have to also act like professionals, and change the whole office structure, not only work with freelancers, like doing this, having like all these fixes and also have fixed times when we come, when we leave and all these things. But it took us a while because I never had the idea of having a graphic design office.
Mario: Yeah. During all those years and also, that’s very I guess organic, kind of humble start and now it’s been like 12 plus years. That is a significant portion of time. I assume there was a different kind of transitions and challenges. So when you’re looking back now, kind of describe if there were some of those more pivotal moments in those last 12 years.
Mirko: Well, that’s hard to say, because I’m not somebody who really plans ahead on long terms. I think the only bigger plan we ever had is opening up that new office space. That is I think something we plan for two or three years and yet this idea for two or three years, but we never found the right space. But it was the only thing we ever plan ahead. I think everything else just happened and I have to admit, we’ve been quite lucky with Die Zeit and the Bavarian States Opera that they followed us as a client for so many years, which also gave us a chance of proving that we can work on a long-term creatively for like a broad community. Because in opera and Die Zeit is like, it’s the biggest German weekly newspaper and kind of magazine supplement, which lays in there as well. It’s super that, like the people there trust me and that we could do so many — or nice things like overall these years, ensure like everybody else as well that this is like a very serious matter, but you can do that beautiful as well.
I think that was like the biggest step for us, also the Bavarian States Opera, which like most opera houses, they don’t dare do what the director of the opera did together with us or worked together with us with all these dramaturges and all the people working there over the years. It was I think is for the audience, sometimes quite challenging what the posts look like or the program books look like. But on the other hand, they have like very high standard of a program and it also helped us that we could undermine that kind of normal reality of an opera house and do something else because the quality is quite high in there. If the quality wouldn’t have been so good, I think you can’t do that the way we did over the years. But now, we didn’t really plan ahead I think.
Mario: Yeah. But when it comes to the same kind of like looking back, were there any like setbacks or like some uncertainties during those years where you were like — so not like let’s say, planning ahead and seeing if this goes or doesn’t go, but more organically during that time, or during all those years. Or is there something, any kind of like hurdle or something that you kind of has to go through?
Mirko: I would say, tons of hurdles. Tons and tons of hurdles. I think it’s like, yeah, it’s really hard to — but there’s not like a key or a major event, which occurred. It’s just — also the transition between being a freelancer and now having a studio, or like being a small studio, and now there’s like — there was this one guy, I had a call yesterday with a designer who wants to work here. He told me we are like a big studio now. I was like, we are not a big studio. We’re still a small studio. But even that, we transitioned it from the outset. Some people might think, this is a big graphic design studio. There’s like a lot of hurdles, I think because we still feel small and I think we are still small. On the other hand, it’s like how to keep this as a nice, small place but also make it somehow profitable in monetary aspects, because it’s like this industry. I mean, 2008 as you said before was like the last big crisis, it took us I think or the whole industry at least 10 years to make the prices almost that good again as they’ve been before the crisis. Now, we have the next crisis.
You saw so many studios rising over the past, I don’t know, two or three years. Yeah, I’m afraid that this is going to change again. Then you’re going to have all the big agencies, which you had before, they are going to survive, that’s for sure. But what’s going to happen to all the small studios?
Mario: I mean, I think that is one of the very important parts of being a professional, is the financial aspect and it’s something that at least in my university I didn’t like learned anything about it. As I kind of hear from most people, that’s rarely a part of a graphic design education.
Mirko: Yeah. I mean, that is such a big problem, because even with the people who come to us and to like an internship or work for us. We have like very open way, like we talk openly about figures, we talk openly about what actually clients pay. Also, interns here, like rich budget are paid. Sometimes they have big eyes and they can’t be two. It’s like these huge brand and we are doing this fucking huge project. It can’t be that they don’t pay enough money. I said, yeah. I mean, for them it’s easy, because if we don’t do it, somebody else is doing it, and it’s still is money. The thing is, we just have to find out how to make it work that it’s still is kind of working out for us and that we don’t, in the end, have the right numbers.
Mirko: That’s super tricky I think sometimes because a lot of agencies doing it that way, that they have some really ugly clients, where they earn some money and then that they can somehow do nice projects in between. But we’re too small for that, we either would be able to do like this dirty jobs to earn some money or like we have the jobs we have. Then we have to check out and make that happen.
Mario: Yeah. It kind of have that in between when you’re a small operation.
Mirko: Yeah.Because I can’t do that because, if you bigger network or like bigger agency easily, you can have like a team of 10 people sitting on the project which earns them money. But I mean, we’re not even ten people.
Mario: If we look in a more like a broader level, so not like immediate challenges or obstacles, but more like let’s say 5, 10, 20 years, are there like any things you foresee for like just challenges in the industry in general for like graphic designer or creatives?
Mirko: That’s a good question. It’s a good question because you know, technique-wise, like 10 years ago, nobody would have even dared to think about something like an iPhone that might happen. I think our industry will change a lot anyways. Everybody said like, I don’t know, ten years ago, that there’s no print happening anymore. Now you see how important physical product are, also like for graphic design, so this didn’t change at all. Then another aspect which rose over the last year is eCommerce. Nobody really thought that you can sell very expensive goods via the Internet. Everybody is proved wrong because you see that works, which gave the industry a lot of jobs as well, and still, is going to give the industry a lot of jobs. I don’t really know. It would be crazy. If I would know it, I could tell you. The only thing I can tell you is, that I hopefully am doing something else in 5 or 10 years than what I’m doing now.
Mario: In what way?
Mirko: Yeah. I really have to plan to stop doing graphic design one day, and I think I should stop with grace, and not be the old guy who’s telling everybody what’s cool and what’s not.
Hey friends. You’re listening to the Creative Voyage podcast. We’re in the middle of this episode, so it’s time for a short break. If you like this podcast, I’m confident you’re going to enjoy the Creative Voyage Monthly Edit, a newsletter for which every month I ask a different creative professional to curate 10 brief recommendations of cool things to inform and inspire including books, articles, products, portfolios, podcasts, and more, and deliver it exclusively to your inbox. It’s a newsletter curated by creatives for creatives. To sign up, visit creative.voyage/newsletter. Thanks, everyone. Let’s get back to the show.
For many people, even in the creative industry, art direction can be a vague and enigmatic discipline. Generally, an art director is a title for various job functions in marketing, advertising, publishing, fashion, film and television, video games, theatre and more. It’s about a story, its visual expression and making it come to life. From guiding to the “bigger picture” to a more hands-on job tightly intertwined with creative production. Here, Mirko shares his thoughts on the discipline and discusses some real-life examples of working with clients such as Die Zeit, Nike and Supreme.
Mirko: Art direction can be like everything because it changed so much over the years as the whole profession changed so much over the years. All my tasks, we have to do like change so much over the years. But in the end, it’s guiding a product or creative leads into the right direction for a brand or a product. I think that’s art direction in a broader aspect. If you see like in daily work behaviour, from client to client, you have to find like kind of a state of mind or state of visuality, which works for them and the people who are consuming it. You all always have to be aware of that. I think that’s how I see, how you should do proper art direction.
Mario: Yeah. Then let’s say, we’re taking an example like you’ve been working as a creative director for Die Zeit for like 11 years or longer. You mentioned before, you have this like one call with them, but like let’s say in that working relationship, can you like go in-depth with that and like describe like what’s your role right there.
Mirko: I mean, my role there, most importantly is like the same as the chief editor, is looking for the tone of voice for the magazine. I’m more like the one who is like finding a visual voice for the whole publisher house, like with all the different art directors in the different section, mainly for Die Zeit magazine. For that, it’s like in that call we have, we’re talking about different subjects, which are going to be in the magazine. For that concrete example, I have like in the same calls where somebody is telling me that I have this, this and that idea. Like I’m on the one side of the phone, like me alone. On the other side, there are like 10 people waiting for my idea. So then I have to push out my thoughts, then we’re already discussing which photographer, which illustrator could do it if he’s available. So the picture department is also on the other side of the phone that could also do research. That’s the way we do it. It’s very hands-on. It’s very like, it’s very immediate.
Mario: Yeah. Then there are also art directors within the magazine.
Mirko: Yes. Die Zeit magazine has one art director and a small graphic team. Then they’re already also in the call. So they already know what’s happening and what the direction is the creative lead is going to be. Once the pictures come, they prepare like the layout on the master file we provided beforehand, and then we work ourselves through.
Mario: Yeah. Then for you, is it — like when you picture ideas, or like give your thoughts on certain like subject, is it like mostly like verbal and through providing feedback? Do you also like prepare like some mood boards or like some decks or like how do you —
Mirko: It really depends on how difficult the idea is. Mostly it really works just via that call, that I can describe it and then maybe I send a link of a photographer, or I send a link of the illustrator. But I mean, if it’s more complicated, I prepare like not a mood bar, but do a couple of screenshots and send them. But we know each other for so long, that it’s like — it’s like a very close relationship, like a long time marriage. You wake up, you see your wife, and you already know how the day is going to be. It’s more like that.
Mario: Is there like another example, maybe the Kaleidoscope magazine or something else where you maybe like work in a different or like —
Mirko: I think every client has like different — because you know, this is a different way of working. Some people provide — already work a lot ahead, and then I have to get all the puzzle pieces and bring them together. Some clients are super organized. It really depends. Like with Nike, it’s like just two sentences they send and then they want like a deck one or two days later, like with the full creative lead for a campaign. It can be like all different varieties. Or we’re working on Supreme now for a few months, the first collections. But it’s mostly clothes, t-shirts, hoodies, sneakers. But we do the design together with the team in New York, and that is like it’s just a shout. They say, “Maybe we need a snap cap for it dropped in two months.” Ideas like, “We need a monogram for that.” Then pushing up monograms.
Or they say, “We need a general lead on photography.” Then we do a mood board on photography. I think that’s a cool thing about our business, is that the task can be so different, that there’s not like one way off like how art direction must work, but like everybody has to find his own way of working with like every individual.
Mario: Yeah, exactly. In one of your lectures, you’ve mentioned that you have certain rules or you kind of like work and prefer to work within certain like limits or constraints, which gives you I guess a framework. Even though like looking through the portfolio of your studio, there’s like a lot of variety and there’s different stakes or expression. But I guess there is a certain framework as well, so I’m curious like can you talk a bit about that, like what is your framework?
Mirko: I mean the work and the variety is so big of the studio, definitely is — that’s the part that we allow the client to work very closely together with us. I’m not afraid of clients sitting next to us during a creative process. How we approach mostly like if you have like a new bigger task for a client, we try to figure out like two, three, four different directions of design and ideas, but super roughly. Then we already do the first presentation and guide the client through that presentation, before like anything is like halfway done, like really rough, like in-between moods and show ideas. But like these ideas in themselves are already ideas you can have as a graphical concept.
Then we try to figure out in which direction the client wants to go. In the next step, we tried to work out this direction and refine it. But not refining it too much, that the client still has the chance to change something in between the process without killing your idea. I think that’s the most important like I think a lot of people — and I know, I mean, I tend to do it sometimes as well, that you refine something too much. Then if somebody wants to change something, it’s almost impossible, because it’s already like — it’s 100% so logic the concept you have, that if you change just one piece, the whole thing breaks. I think for me, for the last years, it turned out that the easier I start with a project and the less I try to force somebody, like the client into one direction, and the more I still give the chance for both sides to have an open discussion on the creative output, the better the output is.
At this point in our conversation, I’ve asked Mirko if he got any reflective practices or long-term plans regarding his career or the future of his studio. Here’s what he shared with me.
Mirko: I think the only plan I have is like thinking about how to end my career gracefully because the thing is like — I mean, it’s a very young industry, like altogether, it’s a very young industry and nobody gets younger over the time. I’m a middle-ager now, I definitely have to think about when to stop because the day is going to come when I’m going to sit and everybody’s thinking like, “What is that old guy telling me about cool stuff?” Definitely, because it’s like, what are you going to do after that? What am I going to like — because I have a lot of people in the office which are helping definitely the whole time to improve that place. So what is going to last for them one day? I think that’s the most important part to think of all the time.
Mario: Yeah. Do you have any like insights with that?
Mirko: Lucky enough, I’m still young enough that I always try to think about it, but then, try to forget about it again. But yeah, I mean, like yeah, we have this idea that’s why we have like this new place where we moved in, where we have like more possibilities also to develop like maybe own products, or like to establish like a new kind of place or maybe a new kind of office structure that something can stay sustainable for the rest of the staff. But yeah, it’s all in the making, so we don’t really have a 100% safe plan yet.
Mario: Yeah. I mean, you are like, it seems like very much kind of like I guess in the middle of it.
Mirko: Yeah, of course.
Mario: I think it’s interesting to hear that you like started to think about that as well because it is like — especially it’s like smaller studios which then often revolve around the leader. Your studio also has your name in it, like it’s interesting to see how those things can develop past the personality of that one person.
Mirko: Yeah, because I think it’s also very important that obviously, I mean, it’s like not only me being the super creative guy in that office, it’s like a whole community, which builds up these ideas around me too. It is always a subject how to make things for these people, like the ones who are next to me for the last three, four years, and are also like part of the whole idea we have in here. What’s going to be sustainable for them? That’s why we — in the beginning, the office was called Bureau Mirko Borsche, and we already made the step back that is just Bureau Borsche now. We try to emphasize also that it’s just BB, so the BB could also stand for anything else. We try to get that back and also like — because as I said, I mean like when it’s too late, it’s too late. You should start processes like these early, because who knows, I mean, maybe in a few years, I don’t want to do the job anymore. But then, what’s going to last for the others. It needs to be a nice give and take for everybody.
Mario: But do you have any like inclinations or if like, if you stop, like what would be like your dream scenario? What would you do? Because some people are like doing this, but they like always dreamt of being, I don’t know, an art photographer. They’re like, they want to do that or maybe something else. If there’s something like in your ideal scenario you would do.
Mirko: Ideal scenario would be doing nothing actually for a few years. No, yeah, because somehow, sometimes it feels like I really worked my ass off over the past years, and all my friends, everybody is saying, “Yeah. But if you would stop, you can stop. Honestly, Mirko, you would do something.” I was like, “No, no. Actually, if I could afford it, I wouldn’t do anything. But obviously, I can’t, so I have to do something before I don’t find out what I would do. I can’t stop. Maybe I’m going to be the old fad who is telling everybody what’s cool and what’s not in graphic design, because I didn’t find out what I’m going to do else. It’s just a dream. It’s like everybody’s dreaming about things. Reality proves us different. Obviously, I’m going to retire as a graphic designer at 75, 78 but still, ideally, I would stop with 50 or 55.
Mario: Yeah, I think that’s cool. I think it’s interesting that you’re like thinking about it actively.
Mirko: Yeah, but you know it yourself, is like, I don’t know your age, but sometimes, you see like my interns, having like the studio now for 12 years. In the beginning, my interns were almost my age. It felt like they’re almost my age. Now,it feels like, I could be their dad. You know what I mean? It’s not such a big difference in the time, but it’s like so much happened in between in my life and in the life of other people. The interns which come in, they’re so much more ready than they have been like a few years ago. The studies are better, and the people are better prepared I think than they’ve been like 10 years before.
We’ve come to the last topic I’ve discussed with Mirko. As usual, I’ve asked him to highlight three closing pieces of advice based on what he learned so far on his professional journey.
Mirko: Patience, confidence and I think you definitely have to see your profession not too serious. I think because you know, it’s not rocket science. In the end, the less serious you see it, the easier a creative idea comes to you.
Mario: Why would you say patience?
Mirko: Why patience? Because the thing is, you always try to make like the best design or like the best creative lead for a client, obviously. But sometimes it’s not possible, because people don’t want something beautiful, they want something not so beautiful. I think in that case, it can be very frustrating doing their job. But for that, you need some patience because eventually, if you have that patience, there’s another one coming up, and another task coming up where you can prove yourself that you’re a really good designer. If you have that patience, you have still the strength to have fresh eyes on the next brief. If you don’t have the patience, I think you might break underneath it and you got just too frustrated, and just too negative on all these tasks. If you just try to force an idea, it will never feel that easy.
Hey, everyone. That’s it for this episode. I hope you find it useful. If you like this podcast, tell a friend. I want to thank Mirko for coming to the show. I’ve been a fan of his studio’s remarkable work for a long time and I’m grateful for all the insights he shared. Links to Mirko’s work and some other things mentioned during the conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast.
If you love printed matter, check out our first publication, the Creative Voyage Paper, featuring adapted podcast episodes, three publication-exclusive One Lesson learned features and various tips for levelling up. Visit creative.voyage to get your copy. And lastly, if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this podcast. Until next time my friends. Take care.
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